Worthingtons Solicitors

Covid-19 vaccine: Key Q&As for Employers

This week in Northern Ireland, we witnessed members of the public receive the long-awaited Covid-19 vaccine. It is hoped that by the end of 2021 the vaccine should be available to everyone, albeit how soon you receive it will depend on your age, health conditions and whether you are employed in the health and social care sector.

Whilst many have welcomed the introduction of a Covid-19 vaccine, there has also been a vocal anti-vaccination movement who are challenging the implementation of a widescale immunisation programme. This raises a range of issues and concerns for employers.  

Will a vaccine allow a return to the office?

Whilst it remains to be seen how quickly widespread vaccination can be implemented, it is possible that this could result in a relaxation of social distancing and other measures over the coming months. This will ultimately depend on the speed of mass immunisation and the scale of uptake from members of the public.

In the meantime, employers should follow local public health guidance and should continue to encourage staff to work from home where possible.

Can employers force staff to get the vaccine?

In short, no. Conservative MP, Tom Tugendhat recently hit the headlines when he said that he could “certainly see the day” when managers would be able to ban people from attending the office unless they had received the vaccine. However, the Government have recently denied that any such “vaccine passport” would materialise.

It is important to remember that it is currently not mandatory to receive a Covid-19 vaccine. As such, it will be difficult for employers to impose a blanket requirement for staff to have the vaccine or penalise them for not having it. Imposing such a requirement could bring a risk of discrimination claims, particularly on the grounds of disability and religious belief. Indeed, dismissing an employee for refusing to get a vaccine would likely open the door to unfair dismissal claims.

However, it is possible that certain sectors, for example, those working in a health and social care capacity will be required to get the vaccine.

Can employers recommend that staff get the vaccine?

Yes, employers are permitted to encourage staff to take the vaccine. Many employers already recommend that staff avail of the flu vaccine, with some companies even offering to pay for their staff to get the ‘flu jab’. Employers seeking to encourage staff to get the vaccine may wish to promote awareness of the benefits of immunisation and provide details with regards where to get vaccinated.

What if employees raise concerns about the vaccine in the workplace?

If staff become combative or defensive about their anti-vaccination views, it is important that employers tread carefully. In essence, dealing with concerns of this nature in the workplace will involve balancing an employer’s duty of care from a health and safety perspective with an employee’s right to hold a certain belief.

Can employees refuse to attend work because other staff are not vaccinated?

Discussing vaccination could form part of return to work conversations as restrictions ease in 2021. It is essential to discuss concerns with employees and hopefully demonstrate what is being done to ensure their health and safety.

In the unlikely event that an employee refuses to attend work due to other staff not being vaccinated, employers should consider a range of options, including: continuing to allow the employee to work from home, offering the opportunity to take unpaid leave or asking employees to avail of their holiday entitlement. However, in reality, these are short-term solutions and concerns of this nature will require careful management over a period of weeks and months.

Amy Barr is a Solicitor who regularly advises on employment law matters, including Covid-19 issues in the workplace. She can be contacted on 028 9043 4015 or e-mail at [email protected]

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